Spice island massacre unleashes 'holy war'

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The Independent Online

As many as 160 people, including women and children, are reported to have been massacred in the Indonesian Spice Islands on Monday in one of the worst atrocities so far during a year and a half of bitter religious conflict.

As many as 160 people, including women and children, are reported to have been massacred in the Indonesian Spice Islands on Monday in one of the worst atrocities so far during a year and a half of bitter religious conflict.

One hundred and fifty-two Christians from the village of Duma, as well as eight Muslims, were killed on the remote island of Halmahera in the space of an hour, according to Christian sources. Their attackers were said to have been Muslims, who have been caught up in an unappeasable religious conflict with their Christian neighbours since January last year.

"It was a massacre by Muslims," Father Hadi, a Protestant clergyman from the nearby town of Tobelo, said. "The victims included men, women and children."

About 150 wounded people have been evacuated to Tobelo, and there were some reports that woman and children from Duma had been kidnapped by the attackers. The village church was burned, as were 292 homes, before police and military reinforcements arrived and Indonesian soldiers and marines succeeded in dispersing the combatants.

Duma had become a place of refuge for around 2,000 Christians who had fled there from religious conflict in other parts of Halmahera. Earlier police reports spoke of 116 people killed. "It was a very quick attack," Fr Hadi said. "They had automatic rifles but the Christians only had homemade weapons. We don't know how many are dead, but there are many."

In the early months of the conflict, Christians gave as good as they got in the Moluccas, as the Spice Islands are now known. But they appear to have borne the brunt of the most recent violence, due to the arrival in the islands of some 2,000 members of a group calling itself "Laskar Jihad", or Holy War Force, a paramilitary force devoted to fighting the region's large Christian minority.

Despite announcing their intentions weeks in advance, no serious attempt was made by the authorities to prevent them from reaching the Moluccas, adding to the rumours that the Laskar Jihad enjoys the support of powerful elements in the Indonesian establishment, especially its military.

The person most often named as being behind the violence, although without any hard evidence, is the former dictator, Suharto, who is still believed to command great respect in the military and considerable economic resources, despite being held under house arrest in Jakarta pending the results of an investigation into corruption.

The leader of the Jihad, Jaffar Umar Thalib, is close to Mr Suharto, and has publicly stated his intention of sending 10,000 members to the islands - married volunteers are to spend four months in the Moluccas, while those who are single may stay there indefinitely. However, some of the many volunteers are said to be seeking refuge and asking to be deported from Ambon, the capital, because they came out on the understanding that they would be carrying out humanitarian activities.

The Moluccas, and Ambon, had calmed down after a rash of violence during the winter which brought to 3,000 the total number of people killed on both sides. But it blew up again in the capital shortly after the arrival of Lashkar Jihad, leaving more than 30 dead.

Since then, the jihad has been accused of carrying out several raids on Christian communities in the north of Halmahera, in which at least 200 people have been killed and many more injured. Christian leaders alleged that the attackers, natives of the predominantly Muslim islands of Java and Sulawesi, came in speed boats and were armed with military issue firearms.

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